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Greta Gerwig: The Story Of A Scene

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The co-writer and star of the wonderful Frances Ha talks LWLies through one of the film’s most amazing scenes.

The greatness of Greta Gerwig first came to the attention of LWLies back when she was crowned the queen of mumblecore (remember that?) in 2007 for her roles in Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs and LOL. Since then, she’s managed that rare thing in film, to adapt her redoubtable talents to such glossy studio fare as Arthur, the new Woody Allen (To Rome With Love) and even a grungy horror movie where she gets her head blown off (Ti West’s The House Of The Devil). It was her scintillating turn in Whit Stillman’s arch campus comedy, Damsels In Distress, which first confirmed Gerwig as a major talent, though her work in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha sees her insouciantly emerge into yet another stratum of greatness.

In Frances Ha, she plays an angst-ridden amateur dancer who, due to a prolonged period of penury and indecision, is forced to flat-hop around New York. It’s a film about waiting, hanging out and reticence, and Frances is a character loathe to take a leap into maturity. In one particularly dazzling scene, Frances delivers a prolonged, semi-drunken monologue to the lightly bemused guests at a dinner party. As much as an incredible example of dialogue recall and articulation, it’s a moment which encapsulates the film’s sense of dithering melancholy. Gerwig talks us through how she was able to make this wonderful scene work...

"The scene itself, the writing of it, Noah had the idea that we should give Frances a belief, a particular way of seeing the world or something that she wants. Something that could come true for her. It was based on a Rohmer movie, I forget which one. It’s about a character who thinks she’s missed her opportunity for love and the whole time you think, ‘Oh no, that’s wrong!’ At the end of the movie, she sees her ex-boyfriend and realises that she was in love with him and that she wasn’t just a malcontent with an unhappy life. She actually did lose her love and found him again.

"Noah says, let’s give Frances something she believes in. Then, let’s have it happen to her. When he said that, I suggested that we have her explain it. I always like movies where people try to explain things. Like the whole movie is a bunch of stuff, and then the characters just stop and explain an idea. It doesn’t happen that often but when it does I get really excited about it. It happened in this movie called Woman On The Beach by Hong Sang-soo. A guy explains why he could never be in love with a woman who had slept with an American man, and he draws this diagram. The whole movie is just put on hold while he explains this crazy theory, but it’s so devastatingly funny and human.

"With that in mind, I just wrote a longer version of that monologue and give it to Noah. He edited it and we toyed around with where to place it in the film and who she says it to. We wanted it to have that quality where you almost regret she said it. I don’t remember exactly how many takes we did of the scene, but it was a lot. Everyone who was in the scene was there, so that’s the woman I say it to and the people at the dinner party. They sat and they listened to me saying it every single time.

"Acting is a very empathetic art. It’s an act of generosity to be there for another person if they’re really going for it. Even more so if you’re not even on the screen. All these people sat and watched me read these lines about 20 times. And they were so engaged with it the whole time. Their presence really informed the way I was doing it. We wanted Frances to act embarrassingly at the party but for the people there not to go out of their way to humiliate her. They didn’t judge her, they were just perplexed by her. We didn’t want to sell anyone out or make anyone mean or unkind. The fact that these people have so much spare time almost encourages her to keep talking. That’s the best way I can talk about that scene, in terms of the people who were behind the camera."

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